Health-related apps and devices are flooding the digital market. A recent BI Intelligence analysis found that “health and fitness app usage has grown at nearly twice the rate of app usage overall through the first half of 2014.”
But increased usage doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality. According to an October 2013 report released by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, most consumer-oriented health apps are severely lacking when it comes to functionality, or what they actually allow users to do.
Counting steps is fun, for example, but eventually, apps that do only one thing will be seen more as toys than as the transformative health technology some people seem to think they are.
The real killer app probably won’t be an app at all. It will be whatever device successfully combines the limited functionality that so many apps have into an integrated platform that can actually change people’s health and habits in a holistic way. Unless a device or health platform is integrated into people’s daily routines, over a long period of time, it’s unlikely to have a measurable effect on health.
Google and Apple have both recently announced plans to release online health platforms, Google Fit and Health Kit, respectively, which may well make that crucial leap in terms of functionality and integration.
Many Apps, Few Functions
Right now, before the release of Google and Apple’s new ventures, the health app landscape is largely disappointing.
The IMS Institute report looked at 16,275 health- and fitness-related apps on the iTunes store that were widely available to consumers. Most were limited in scope and only had one main function: providing information. Less than 2,500 apps were able to both provide information and track user data. And an even smaller number of apps had a reminder/alert function.
As the report found, apps that just give users information aren’t enough. That kind of technology is disposable.
What people want is one thing that tracks their steps, measures their heart rate, reminds them to take their medications, gives them recommendations on how to change their diet or boost their fitness, and so on — something that really adds value and is both useful and convenient.
If you make it easy for people get healthy, they just might. But if it’s too complicated or convoluted, people probably won’t stick with it.
The Evolution of Wearables
That’s where wearables are coming into play. Wearables are sensor devices that record the user’s data — like heartbeat, steps taken, calories burned, etc. Some examples of health-related wearables are fitness trackers like Nike’s FuelBand and Jawbone’s Up Band.
But such trackers can only do so much. “Beyond the whole counting-your-steps contest,” CNET noted, “bands just don’t do a great job of helping you get more active.”
That’s why, as Fortune and others have reported, fitness bands are likely to be eclipsed by smart watches, like the Apple iWatch to be released in October.
According to Macrumors.com, the iWatch will likely “be able to measure multiple different health-related metrics like steps taken, calories burned, sleep quality, heart rate, and more” through as many as 10 different sensors. These capabilities overlap with some already existing fitness trackers.
But the iWatch differs in two key ways: It is multifunctional — more than just a fitness device — and it aims to be fully integrated into people’s minute-by-minute habits. Its health functions are much more comprehensive than what’s been offered before, and the user will be able to experience those health functions as a seamless part of the do-everything platform.
Pair that with a superior user interface, and the device itself has the potential to become as indispensible as a smartphone, as woven into the fabric of our daily routines. That’s the only way health apps will really become a part of our lives — and powerful enough to change them.
In the end, the best test of whether a health device has succeeded may be whether or not users count it on their short list of essential items.
In an interview with Fortune, Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit, (a start up company developing developing wearable sensor products and services) proposes what he calls the “turn around test” as the ultimate success of a wearable device, meaning that the user would “turn around” if he or she left the device at home.
This is where companies like Apple and Google have a leg up on the competition: If they can turn people’s already-indispensable watches or smartphones into the ultimate health devices, we might soon reach a time when health tech isn’t just another fun app, but as essential and as ordinary as Facebook or email.
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